“Ruby Sparks” (2012): what’s to like?

15 February 2013


There’s nothing to like about this film. It’s PygmalionMy Fair Lady without an actual woman.

Ruby Sparks ought to appeal to me simply by virtue of its female co-director Valerie Faris and screenwriter Zoe Kazan. So why did these people waste our time with a story about such a despicable protagonist, a man so incapable of dealing with real women that he invents one?

Honestly, this is the most offensive Manic Pixie Dream Girl story ever.

You’ll remember that in Shaw’s Pygmalion, Professor Henry Higgins brags that he can transform any woman, no matter how low-born, into a lady — why, he can achieve this so perfectly that a Cockney flower girl will pass as a duchess among the aristocracy; in the process, the misogynist Higgins learns by the end he has only given Eliza a new degree of independence. It’s not the most feminist tale out there, but Shaw didn’t let Higgins off the hook when it came to his cluelessness about women.

Not so with Ruby Sparks. Writer Kazan has given her protagonist Calvin (Paul Dano) all the power. A 20-something wünderkind whose first novel ranks just below The Catcher in the Rye (so plausible!), Calvin is hopeless in relationships, as his brother (Chris Messina) artlessly reveals within the first few minutes. Rattling around in the grand Los Angeles mansion he owns, our writer/protagonist is also blocked, a problem his therapist (Elliott Gould) seeks to help resolve. The therapist believes Calvin’s writer’s block results from a deep level of self-loathing; he urges him to find ways to imagine being loved for who he is.


So far, so good, right? Sure enough, Calvin starts to write about the woman he’s been dreaming about — a dreamy, sunshine-y, backlit vision of a woman. In his dreams, they engage in light conversation — talk that only a 26-yr-old man might believe was interesting, but who cares — it’s a dream, right? Meanwhile, he attacks his typewriter (yes, a typewriter) with new energy during his waking hours and produces pages and pages about this dream woman, whom he names Ruby.

And then she becomes real. If you consider the wide-eyed, baby-doll dress-wearing Ruby (Kazan) to be real. But hey, I was willing to roll with it.

Ruby Sparks 3

She’s real, she’s adorable, and she’s exactly what Calvin wrote about her in his now-growing novelette about his dream woman. She walks around the house in her underpants, covered up with one of Calvin’s button-downs. At other times she wears perky purple tights, all the while looking approximately 14 yrs old. Or perhaps a little bit like one of those life-sized, open-mouthed sex dolls. What is she? Is she really the product of Calvin’s imagination? To test it, he pounds out a sentence on his typewriter — that Ruby will speak only in French — and sure enough, elle parle la français parfaitement. His brother delightedly begs him to do a favor for men worldwide by making her into a sex slave. Ha ha!

Even better, she passes all the tests — Calvin’s snarky brother likes her, his parents like her. The happy couple has one of those montages in which she do cute things to a soundtrack. Calvin likes who he is with her.


But gradually — inevitably — their relationship becomes something more than happy beach montages. And she starts to get more real. She has desires of her own — to get out of the house, to do things without him. Calvin retreats more into his study where he replicates the self-loathing, relationship-destroying behavior that pushed away those other women.

So he tries to rewrite her, to adjust her behavior.


Ruby Sparks wants us to think about the unsettling nature of such a male fantasy — a Manic Pixie Dream Girl that a dude can manipulate like a puppeteer — but it doesn’t want us to think too hard. This is more like the stoner version, which begins with, “Wouldn’t it be great to have an awesome, uncritical girlfriend who did whatever I wanted?” and ends with, “Whoa, maybe it wouldn’t be so great after all.” We are supposed to believe that Calvin learns something from this experience; that he deepens as a man. We are supposed to like him through all this, to believe he’s both capable and deserving of a happy relationship.

This was not my experience.


My own opinion is that Calvin is a miserable, rich piece of shit whose narcissism is not charming, fixable, or funny to watch (in fact, by the end of the film I’d come to hate Paul Dano). In this the film succeeded too well — its disturbing dénouement makes him all the more despicable. And to spoil the ending (not that you should see this film anyway), the story actually rewards Calvin. Not only does he transform his experience with Ruby into yet another bestselling novel — writer’s block cured! — but on a walk through the park with his dog, he meets-cute a Ruby lookalike (Kazan again) — and gets to start all over again!

So in case the message isn’t clear already: for all you self-centered men out there who can’t seem to sustain relationships, don’t worry! This film will not question your right to end up with adoring, baby-doll dress-wearing Dream Girls — far from it. In fact, it argues that these Girls are serially available in identical models!

Yay for feminism!

Now, back to my own regularly-scheduled fantasy: that I stab Calvin in the head with a knife over and over and over.


9 Responses to ““Ruby Sparks” (2012): what’s to like?”

  1. Hattie Says:

    Oh god. Not that I would ever watch a movie with such a stupid premise!

    • Didion Says:

      Thank you for being so much more intelligent than I was. Wish I could rid the image of Paul Dano from my mind completely.

      Also, can I say that it makes me all the more queasy that Kazan and Dano are a real-life couple? Ick.

  2. JustMeMike Says:

    Great stuff –

    Nice to see you throw some heavy punches at a film. I wish I could say that this review will not only stop me from seeing the film, but it will stop me from even watching the trailer. However, unfortunately, I’ve already seen the trailer.

    • Didion Says:

      Yeah, sometimes I wonder whether I’m being excessively kind to films … and then one makes me want to shoot myself.

  3. Dark Iris Says:

    Your own fantasy fits right in with February’s Women in Horror month…that film I might enjoy. I’m struck by the fact that Kazan and Dano are a “real life” couple, and that they came up with this concept together as their “dream” project. Makes you wonder…

  4. Sam Loy Says:

    I actually got something different from this. Although I agree the ending is awful and he was a complete doucheturd who didn’t deserve any amount of the happiness that he got.

    But I kind of saw Ruby as a rejection of the female tropes we have come to know and loathe in movies. Near the start, the brother talks about a few of these archetypes and then says that they don’t exist. Then throughout their experience together, Calvin has Ruby adopt a number of these tropes for his own benefit, yet none of them make either of them happy.

    I don’t think they pulled it off – mainly because of Calvin’s aforementioned douchieness – but I actually think they were trying to say something about women needing to be self-defined.

    Or something like that. I didn’t really like the film, but I don’t think I hated it as much as you.

    Thanks for the giggle, though!

    • Didion Says:

      I truly appreciate that view, Sam. I really did hate on the film.

      I also agree that Ruby truly was pretty awesome in the middle. And there was something so interesting about the fact that she wanted to make him better than he was — dragging him up the coast to his mother’s place and making the whole experience enjoyable. When he remained so resistent to those changes she withdrew, seeking happiness of her own making. I did love the fact that she ultimately wanted to leave him, just as a real woman would want to leave him.

      But I guess I still see her as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl — that “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures,” as Nathan Rabin put it all those years ago. I just found an article in which Kazan dismisses the term as misogynistic; but I don’t think she understands exactly how frequently this trope has been used during the past 15 years or so in cinema, or the extent to which it is always used to help the male protagonist get himself together. Yes, the concept *is* misogynistic. Which is why it’s a *problem* that the trope won’t go away, even in plots written by women.

      Am I being too harsh?

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